Doctors Without Borders: Meaningful work that fosters leadership

By Claudia Blume

Each year, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) sends more than 3,600 international staff to join more than 40,000 locally hired staff to provide medical aid in more than 70 countries in the world.  From Canada, we sent 378 people to the field last year, more than half of them with a medical background.

MSF Canada recruiter Maher Najari explains what kind of professionals the organization is looking for, what professional development opportunities MSF offers and whether humanitarian work can be a long-term career option.

What kind of medical and non-medical professionals is MSF looking for?

We are always looking for physicians with specializations such as emergency doctors, pediatricians, psychiatrists, gynecologists, obstetricians, surgeons, infectious disease specialists, anesthesiologists and internal medicine doctors. Experience in areas such as HIV/AIDS, TB, maternal health, nutrition and tropical medicine is an asset.

Nurses play a critical role in the delivery of medical aid in our programs. Nurses with a broad range of experience are very sought-after, as well as nurses with specializations such as neonatal nurses, pediatric nurses, OR and ER nurses. We also need pharmacists, epidemiologists, midwives and mental health specialists.

People who work in the non medical fields within hospitals – such as administrators, human resources professionals and accountants – are also sought after by MSF.

I worked as an analyst for an HR management consultant firm in Canada, for example, before becoming an HR coordinator for MSF projects in Iraq, Turkey and Niger.

Generally speaking, having work experience in remote, rural areas is a strong asset, as it’s similar to the conditions our staff finds in many of the areas we work in. Speaking French, even at intermediate level, is a huge plus for anybody interested in working with us. Fluency in other languages, such as Arabic, can also lead to a more successful application and more opportunities for placement.

Does MSF accept international medical graduates?

International work experience, especially in low-resource settings, can be a real asset. We accept applications from Canadian permanent residents and citizens who are international medical graduates without Canadian credentials. In addition to the essential prerequisites that all physicians must meet, there are other requirements. They include belonging to a medical association, having a valid medical licence and having practiced medicine within the last two years. For more information people should consult our FAQ for international medical graduates on our website.

How long is a typical overseas assignment with MSF and what does MSF offer in terms of compensation?

The length of the first assignment is typically 6 to 12 months, depending on the needs in the field and the profile of the applicant. Certain medical profiles such as OBGYNs, anesthesiologists and surgeons are typically sent on assignments that last 6 to 12 weeks.

Working in the field with MSF is not a volunteer position, but it does require a spirit of volunteerism and our salary reflects this. During a first assignment, everyone receives the same salary for their first 12 months of fieldwork, regardless of their position. The gross monthly salary is $2426 per month and we also offer pre-departure training, psychological support before departing and upon return to Canada, coverage of required vaccinations and related medical fees, accommodation and transportation, a comprehensive insurance package and medical and professional indemnity. We also believe strongly in investing into the professional development of fieldworkers.

Can working for MSF be a long-term career option for Canadian health professionals?

We are actively looking for people who want to commit to a long-term career with MSF. Every fieldworker is assigned a career manager who briefs them before they go on an assignment, follows up with them while they are overseas and debriefs them after they come back. Career managers will discuss performance evaluations, a fieldworker’s interests and goals within MSF and offer training when possible. Each of MSF’s operational centers in Europe has a learning unit that offers training programmes for field workers. We also have a mentoring programme in which more experienced staff support their newer colleagues.

What professional development options do you offer to health professionals?

MSF offers a number of technical trainings for all of its staff, for example on HIV/AIDS, malaria or TB, that can be accessed online or face to face.

Most of the time, international health professionals will manage teams of national colleagues, so the main focus of our support and training opportunities is in the area of management and leadership.

There are many opportunities for professional growth and for taking on an increasing level of responsibility. We need leaders within MSF! I met a nurse who was promoted to medical team leader in a project and later became the medical coordinator, who is based in the capital. The medical coordinator is the highest level of responsibility for MSF’s medical activities in a whole country or region! She is now the medical referent at headquarters in Barcelona, overseeing the medical activities in many different projects around the world.

What kind of technical support do fieldworkers get when they work in the field?

We have medical protocols and guidelines, of course, and for specific questions they can talk to the medical team leader in the project, or the medical coordinator in the capital.  We also have a telemedicine project that connects teams in the field with medical specialists around the globe. One of our biggest resources are our national colleagues, who can provide international staff with more background and context to cases they are seeing.

What kind of new skills can health professionals gain while working for MSF, and how beneficial is the overseas experience for their work back in Canada?

One of the main skills our staff gain overseas is leadership – how to manage a culturally diverse team, in challenging conditions with a high work load in – mostly – low-resource settings. All these soft skills – managing stress, teamwork, flexibility, leadership – are not something you can learn about it in a book. In my own experience and having spoken to many returned health professionals I hear a common refrain…working with MSF is among the most meaningful experiences on both a personal and professional level that they have ever done.

To find out more about working for Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières and how the recruitment process works, please go to our website.

Claudia Blume is a Press officer, Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières Canada.